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LI Sandy repairs could cost towns more than $520 million

Debris is piled across Michigan Street in Long

Debris is piled across Michigan Street in Long Beach as people strip their houses and throw out belongings that were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 18, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The bill for damages and cleanup from superstorm Sandy will exceed a half-billion dollars for Long Island's cities, towns and villages -- and officials are still counting.

The most recent estimates provided by the Island's 13 towns, two cities and 10 of its hardest-hit villages place the bill at more than $520 million.

The sheer size of the costs has officials in municipalities -- already struggling with budget concerns -- worrying about how they will cover the repairs.

Municipalities are looking to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help recoup some of the costs, but bills will have to be paid first.

Local officials are contemplating bonding and tapping already strained budgets to pay for the work, and some already have begun those processes. Other communities might dip into reserves -- many of which have dwindled in recent years as towns have struggled to maintain balanced budgets.

Bills for big-ticket items -- such as Long Beach's battered boardwalk, estimated to cost $25 million to restore, and Ocean Beach's ferry terminal and boathouse, which could cost the tiny village $1 million to fix -- will come due soon.

The costs weigh heavily on the minds of town officials, said Tim Ruggeri, spokesman for Babylon Town, which estimates a $21 million Sandy bill.

"We find ourselves in an unprecedented situation and the cleanup is still going on," Ruggeri said.

The White House has proposed $60.4 billion in federal aid for the Northeast, but it is unclear how much of that would go to Long Island governments.

The costs to municipalities include debris removal and disposal, cleanup, infrastructure repairs and overtime for workers.


Wait for reimbursements

FEMA typically reimburses communities for three-quarters of the cost of emergency cleanup and repairs after a natural disaster. But the money does not arrive immediately, as FEMA aid is a reimbursement program in which money must be expended first, said Mike Byrne, the agency's federal coordinating officer for New York.

Delays can be considerable. Some municipalities only recently received reimbursement for expenses from Tropical Storm Irene, which struck in August 2011. Brookhaven, for example, was reimbursed in August 2012.

Some officials from damaged areas will want to rebuild facilities stronger than they were pre-Sandy, which will add more time to the reimbursement schedule, Byrne said. Hardening buildings and infrastructure to withstand future storms will likely take longer and cost more.

Oyster Bay Town has authorized issuing up to $15 million in budget notes to pay for expenditures related to Sandy. That should cover cleanup costs, town officials have said.

The town expects to recoup the costs and pay off the bonds with disaster aid from FEMA, officials have said.

"The devastation from the storm was amazing," Supervisor John Venditto said. "It looked like a war zone."


Avoiding bonding

Riverhead officials want to avoid bonding, but the town estimates it owes $1.28 million for damage to buildings, bulkheads, roads and beaches, Supervisor Sean Walter said. The town might use its fund balance to pay for the damage until FEMA checks arrive, he said.

"We do have some surplus left in town resources. The last thing I want to do is sell bonds for this, so we'll try to pay for it in-house," Walter said.

Some towns, including Southampton, face heavy bills because of the high cost of storm mitigation. Southampton must pay $2.5 million for short-term damage, and about $50 million for projects such as dune restoration and improving shelter facilities, Comptroller Leonard Marchese said.

Short-term costs can be paid with reserves, but funding for mitigation projects is cloudier.

"The long-term projects would need to be preapproved and funded in order to proceed," Marchese said.

Historic damage on Fire Island has caused Brookhaven to consider bonding. Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said he estimates the town's damages from Sandy at $60 million -- $34 million from the erosion control district on Fire Island, mostly for rebuilding the beach and dunes, and another $10 million for the island's boardwalks.

Until the town is reimbursed by FEMA, Romaine said, the money for repairs will come from the 2012 operating budget and possibly from reserves, with capital expenses such as damage to buildings likely to be bonded out.

"Honestly, this is a huge project," he said.

In Babylon Town, where Sandy battered parks and three barrier beaches, officials plan to use mostly reserves from the town's garbage fund, as well as some general fund reserves, to pay bills while waiting for reimbursement from FEMA, Ruggeri said.


Worry over tax cap

The magnitude of the bills has some officials questioning whether they will be able to meet the state's 2 percent tax-levy cap in the next budgeting go-round. Babylon Village Mayor Ralph Scordino, whose village faces more than $500,000 in costs, said it is difficult enough meeting the cap given rising pension and health care costs.

Scordino said he had "no problem last year going over" the tax cap and said Sandy is likely to make it even more difficult to stay under the cap. Legislators in Albany, he said, should consider exempting Sandy-related costs from tax cap calculations or suspend the cap for one year.

In Lindenhurst, where workers had collected 3,400 tons of construction debris and household brush by Nov. 13, the bill will likely top $1 million. Village officials are considering the possibility of bonding to pay for work, village clerk Shawn Cullinane said.

"When people start asking for their checks . . . when that pressure starts to build, then we'll have to figure out if we have to do some short-term borrowing," he said.

Amityville -- which has a $14.5 million budget and a recent history of serious financial struggles, including three bond downgrades in the past three years -- now faces a $2 million bill for Sandy.

Mayor Peter Imbert said the village hopes FEMA money will alleviate its cash-flow problems, but "if we have to borrow short-term, we will."

"The main thing is cleaning up because people are suffering," Imbert said. "We'll do what we have to do and worry about the money later. Even if we don't get a dime from FEMA, we have to clean up. What are we supposed to do, leave this stuff in the street?"

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